Weird & Wonderful London 7


I reshoot these images from bound collections, not from online versions, and in a great many of the old photography books I search there are unimaginably crowded scenes of protest or celebration. Of course we still do that now, but what impresses is the size of the gatherings then. Similar events today garner a fraction of the numbers. The best shots are always the ones where people are caught off-guard, but it’s hard finding them. I’ll do a couple more of these if I get time (I’m meant to be writing!)

So, to the question on everyone’s lips. Where did ‘Polly Parrot’ come from? This, it seems, was the original Polly Parrot, a foul-mouthed old bird who entertained kings and queens. Here she is at Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese in 1919, about to share dinner with Queen Mary. On Armistice Night in 1918 she imitated the popping of champagne corks over 400 times and passed out. When she died in 1926 at the age of 40, news of her death was broadcast around the world, along with over 200 obituaries. She’s still there in the Cheese somewhere, stuffed.

The British Empire loved its colonies and endlessly celebrated them with festivals and holidays, mainly because they supplied us with cheap goods. So it appears Canada was simply ‘Britain’s Granary’, which seems a bit insulting. However, as a stable model of  democracy Canada always had a special right of place in British hearts. Canada Arch was in Whitehall, here decorated for the Coronation of King Edward VII.

In Theobald’s Road, very near where I live, the Blitz bombing was so heavy that almost nothing survived and the streets became wastelands. German pilots were trying to hit St Paul’s Cathedral nearby, and had been instructed not to return with any bombs left in their bays, so they expended them. The bakery is open as usual, and there’s a customer.

Business went on as usual in the bookshops, too, although this is all that remains of the great library at Holland House, the historic Jacobean mansion in Kensington that was utterly destroyed in October 1940. It seems members of the public were still intent on browsing, even after the building had been blown up. There were frequent salvage sales of remaining items after shops had been destroyed in Central London.

London’s rail and tube staff have the strongest unions and still go on strike more often than any other public sector. In 1965 the porters at St Pancras Station walked out and the public, who had had enough, simply took to the task themselves.


13 comments on “Weird & Wonderful London 7”

  1. snowy says:

    The story behind the arch is more than it at first might appear.

    ‘The Canadian Arch’ in Whitehall, was erected on the ceremonial route from Buckingham Palace to Westminster Abbey by the Canadian Government, for the coronation of King Edward VII in July 1902.

    “It is 56 feet high and 60 feet wide. The archway is 25 feet wide, the whole structure being capped by an open lantern with a roof of crown formation. It is “thatched” with wheat sheaves from Manitoba, and Canada’s national emblem, the maple leaf, is effectively interspersed with the yellow grain.” [London Sphere 1902]

    It was part of an concerted advertising campaign to encourage settlers/migrants to come to the Canadian praries, cooked up by Sir Clifford Sifton, of the Canadian Government, which only becomes clear when reading a fuller description.

    Brilliantly lit with electric lights, messages on both sides of the arch were visible night and day. “Canada. Britain’s Granary. God Bless Our King and Queen” appeared on the side facing Buckingham Palace. The message on the other side read “Canada. Free Homes for Millions. God Bless the Royal Family.”

  2. Matt says:

    Great photos, thank you. Now you’ve found the original Polly Parrot, what about Jenny Wren, Tom Tit, Maggie Pie and Robin Redbreast? The latter being the only one where we’ve thoroughly adopted their forename.

  3. Brooke says:

    Last image….Discount airline passengers?

  4. Ian Luck says:

    The picture of Holland House library was used as the cover of an album by Public Service Broadcasting, entitled ‘The War Room’. It contains some fantastic music, with dialogue from various Central Office of Information films of the pre and war period. P.S.B. were given access to the British Film Institute’s library of C.O.I. films, and allowed to marry their music to the images, and the results are superb, especially the shiver-inducing ‘London Can Take It’, which I showed a work colleague who had not a clue of the horrors of the ‘Blitz’, and who was utterly appalled on seeing the video. He was a young Nigerian guy, who had actually lived in London for years, and had no idea whatsoever. It fascinated, and deeply bothered him for ages.

  5. Wayne Mook says:

    P.S.B. do marry words well with their music, Everest is still a favourite. “The air is getting thinner and thinner, at such heights when your lacking oxygen you may think your normal but your not. Your moving in a dream, a dream that deludes and debilitates.”

    I love a number of the old warehouses with terracotta and art nouveau decoration, India house & Canada house, in Manchester, a lot are now apartments or office blocks, some even hotels with bewildering corridors like the Britannia near Piccadilly Gardens.


  6. Roger says:

    As parrots were named Poll in the sixteenth century, Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese’s certainly wasn’t the original, unless they missed a nought off her age. Parrots are famous for their longevity, though.

  7. Ian Luck says:

    Wayne – you’re right. There’s one bit of dialogue on ‘Everest’ that always brings me out in goosebumps – “Two very small men, cutting steps in the roof of the world.” A beautiful, evocative image, from a time when people thought a great deal more about what they said, before they actually said it.

  8. Helen Martin says:

    Ian, that is an extremely fine phrase about Everest. I wish the world and all didn’t feel they have a right to get there.

  9. Helen Martin says:

    Oh, and thanks for the words about Canada, Snowy. Exactly right, as we had been trying since ’67 to encourage settlers to make Canada exactly that, the Granary of Britain. We didn’t have a big manufactury yet. (Why isn’t that a word?) The grain was to provide the CPR with a profit and the railway would tie Canada together.
    We’re always trying to tie Canada together, as if it weren’t one great land mass plus Nfld & Labrador, Vancouver Island, Haida Gwai, and the islands beyond the Northwest Territories. We say the same thing about CBC radio but not so much about the tv.

  10. Ian Luck says:

    Helen – you’re perfectly correct. I looked at a picture of Everest the other day, and couldn’t work out what I was looking at. Then it clicked. It was a queue of about thirty people all making their way to the summit. I was both shocked and disgusted. Because of this sort of tourist bastardy, Everest is now the highest rubbish tip on earth. Food packs, Oxygen bottles, bags of excrement, corpses. All up there because some hipster berk from Chiswick wants to tick Everest off his bucket list. I know it makes a lot of money for some folks in Nepal, but they really should limit the numbers who climb the thing. And that’s today’s annoyance done with.

  11. Wayne Mook says:

    It is a lovely evocative phrase Ian.

    As for Everest the overcrowding is causing an increasing amount of deaths. There are supposedly a number of learner climbers scaling the mountain. a worrying trend.

    Helen, I used to keep a weather eye on CBC radio, but not so much now. Do they put any drama on now?


  12. Helen Martin says:

    Wayne, no they don’t because they aren’t given enough money. The last one was the Afghanada series which was praised by an American trucker I overheard explaining why he tried to make sure he was over the border by 11am on Thursdays.

  13. Wayne Mook says:

    That’s sad Helen. The BBC is currently repeating Nightfall from CBC on Radio 4extra.


Comments are closed.